Christmas time is here, which means holiday movies are all the rage. But some of the best holiday movies aren’t uplifting tales of the triumph of the human spirit. Welcome to Dysfunctional Holiday Theater.
You can’t do a list of great non-traditional Christmas movies without including my personal favorite. That’s right, the 1988 action classic Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman and Reginald VelJohnson.
For the uninitiated, Die Hard is the story of NYPD officer John McClane, who flies out to California to see his estranged wife and his kids for Christmas. While he visits her at her office in the Nakatomi building, German thief Hans Gruber takes a crew to the tower to steal $640 million in bearer bonds. Gruber takes the Nakatomi Christmas party hostage, but McClane manages to get away and starts picking off the 12 terrorists as the LAPD is held at bay outside the building.
The LAPD, in fact, were completely ignoring the situation, despite McClane trying to get them to respond to the situation, until the New Yorker kills one of the Germans and tosses him out the window and onto Sgt. Al Powell’s car.
Powell, of course, was played by Reginald VelJohnson, before he became the straight man to Steve Urkel’s antics on Family Matters.
While the film is absolutely a Christmas movie, since it takes place around the holiday, the movie was actually released in the summer, oddly enough. Based on the 1979 novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp, Die Hard turned Willis into a huge action hero after the studio only gave him the part because more established stars turned the role down. It also launched the cinematic career of Alan Rickman, who almost didn’t take the part because he didn’t want his first role to be a villain.
I couldn’t imagine this movie with anyone else in Willis’ and Rickman’s roles. In the scene where McClane and Gruber meet for the first time, much of the dialogue was improvised, because the scene was inserted into the script after the flick had started filming.
As Gruber outplays the LAPD and the FBI, whom he has prepared for, he is bested at every turn by McClane, who is a wild card that he hadn’t accounted for.The cop takes out all of Gruber’s men and finally takes out Gruber, after the thief went after his wife, Holly.
Some other great performances in the movie include William Atherton as the slimy TV newscaster Richard Thornburg, who threatened Holly’s maid with the INS to get an interview with the couple’s kids; and Paul Gleason as Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, who was calling on McClane to stand down up until FBI Special Agents Johnson and Johnson show up, when he seems to ease up a bit.
Atherton, of course also played EPA lawyer Walter Peck in Ghostbusters, while Gleason is better known as assistant principal Vernon in The Breakfast Club.
Die Hard quickly became the standard-bearer for action movies, and it launched a franchise of some great (DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE) and not so great (the other three) sequels. If you haven’t sat down to watch it again this Christmas season, you should do so first chance you get.